Imagine if a top American historian appeared on the MSM insisting that the only reason Europeans conquered the Americas was to "defend" the Native Americans—who somehow had adopted Christianity centuries before Jesus was born—from being persecuted by heathen tribes.
While that would create a maelstrom of outrage and derision in the West, in the Arab world—where some think bewitched animals work as infidel operatives—such absurdities regularly pass for "truth."
Copts: Muslims Before Muhammad
Consider the case of Fadel Soliman, a celebrated Sharia expert and Arab media darling. Director of the Bridges Foundation—which teaches Muslims "how to present Islam" to non-Muslims—Soliman also lectures at Western universities, churches, and governmental agencies, including the U.S. Dept. of Defense.
His new Arabic book, Copts: Muslims Before Muhammad, which he has been promoting all over the media, including al-Jazeera, asserts that, at the time of the Muslim conquest of Egypt (c. 640), the vast majority of Egyptians were not, as history has long taught, Christians, but rather prototypical Muslims, or muwahidin, who were actually being oppressed by Christians: hence, the Muslim conquest of Egypt was really about "liberating" fellow Muslims. Soliman's evidence is that the Arian sect, which rejected the claim that Jesus was coequal with God, was present in 4th century Egypt. Therefore, according to Soliman, the indigenous Egyptians were practicing "proto-Islam" hundreds of years before it was founded in the 7th century.
As with much of modern academia's approach to Islam, this thesis is based on pure fiction. While the Arians were pronounced heretics at the Council of Nicea (325) for their interpretation of the Trinity, they nonetheless accepted all of Christianity's core tenets—including original sin, crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation—all of which directly contradict Islam's teachings. What an imaginative stretch, then, for Soliman to portray the Arians as prototypical Muslims, simply because they did not believe Jesus was coequal with God (a standard that would make many people today "Muslims").
Needless to say, no historian has ever suggested that Muslims invaded Egypt to liberate "proto-Muslims." Rather, the Muslim historians who wrote our primary sources on Islam, candidly and refreshingly present the conquests as they were—conquests, for the glory and empowerment of Islam and its followers at the expense of unbelieving infidels.
Of course, with the weakening of Islam in the modern era, embarrassed Muslims began to euphemize their imperialistic history, portraying jihad as "defensive," "spiritual," etc.—culminating with Soliman's fairy tale. Even the unapologetic Sayyid Qutb, the sheikh of "radical Islam," interpreted jihad and the conquests as "altruistic" endeavors to "liberate" mankind.
Such sophistry is inevitable; for the Muslim conquests pose a thorny problem for Muslims. As David Cook writes in Understanding Jihad, p.167:
[T]he conquests were seen from the beginning as one of the incontrovertible proofs of Islam. To disavow them or to examine them critically—which has yet to happen in the Muslim world—will be very painful for Muslims especially Arabic-speaking Muslims. At every point… when Muslims have tried to abandon militant jihad for the internal, spiritual jihad… the memory of the conquests and the need to rationalize them have defeated this effort. The problem may lie in the unwillingness to confront the fact that the conquests were basically unjustified. They were not a "liberation" and they were not desired by the non-Muslim peoples; they were endured and finally accepted.
Fadel Soliman, Islam expert and "bridge-builder"
The question remains: Are Islam's apologists disingenuous or deluded? When it comes to "bridge-building" Soliman—who provides "sensitivity training" to the FBI and Pentagon—one is inclined to answer in the former: his book contains academic crimes, including flagrant mistranslations to support his thesis and wild, but undocumented, assertions (for example, that the Arians, like the Muslims, used to proclaim "There is no god but Allah and Jesus is his prophet").
That said, Muslim self-deception—typified by the impulsive need to always exonerate Islam—is a very real and widespread phenomenon. I am reminded of an Arabic op-ed I read last year in Al-Masry Al-Youm, which opened by bluntly saying: "We Muslims have an inferiority complex…and feel that our Islamic religion needs constant, daily affirmation from Europeans and Americans… What rapturous joy takes us when one of them converts—as if to reassure us that our religion is 'okay.'" Discussing how the Arab world exulted when it erroneously thought that Muslim critic Henryk Broder had accepted Islam—based on sarcastic remarks he had made—the author wrote "but we are a people who do not understand sarcasm, since it is subtle and requires a bit of thinking and intellectualizing; rather, we read quickly, with a hopeful eye, not an eye for truth and reality."
Considering Islam's lax views on deception, this comes as no surprise. After all, whether Muslims consciously deceive infidels or unconsciously deceive themselves, the goal has long been one: empowering Islam and its adherents—reality be damned.
Raymond Ibrahim is associate director of the Middle East Forum